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The long-term environmental toll of Israel's assault on Gaza

The long-term environmental toll of Israel's assault on Gaza
05 December, 2023
Israel's bombing of Gaza has decimated its land, people, and environment. Even if a political solution is found, the environmental degradation caused by Israel is likely to take lifetimes to remedy or cause the slow death of Gaza's biosphere.

It was never in doubt that another war in the Gaza Strip would ravage the environment there.

With Israeli warplanes pounding the territory’s already-overstretched infrastructure and exacerbating its notorious water crisis, Gazans found themselves drinking water contaminated with sewage soon after the bombardment began.

But as the Israeli invasion has ground on for weeks, the longer-term environmental toll for Gaza is coming into focus. If the territory seemed unliveable before, the future looks that much worse for Gaza.

On November 20, the Turkish news agency TRT World reported that experts were raising alarms about the environmental issues that will confront Gazans once the war ends.

The report highlighted how the relentless use of ammunition and explosives in Gaza is pumping toxic particles into the air and water, with the potential to poison Gazans for years to come.

Concern about Gaza’s escalating environmental issues is spreading to the highest levels of the international community. “Air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, toxic contamination and large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by military conflict,” David R. Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, told TRT World.

“These environmental impacts exacerbate the toll of death and injury directly caused by acts of war, but the environmental death toll will continue for decades due to respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer caused by exposure to elevated levels of pollution.”

The environmental issues created by war are diverse and disturbing. The Conflict and Environment Observatory compiled a list in a 2020 report: debris from the use of bombs and destruction of buildings fill lungs, military vehicles saturate the air with fumes, metal from spent ammunition seeps into the ground, and waste populates the landscape.

The dangers are vast for animals as well as humans: a 2009 study of conflicts from 1950 to 2000 observed that 80% took place in biodiversity hotspots, while a 2018 study of wars ​​from 1946 to 2010 found a correlation between conflict and dips in the populations of wildlife in protected areas.

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More recent conflicts illustrate the risks that Gazans face. A 2019 report by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs linked American military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Pakistan to “a serious impact on the natural environments of these countries” and the health of civilians and soldiers, contributing to environmental issues like air and water pollution and deforestation.

Last year, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted how the Russo-Ukrainian War led to “huge emissions of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases, generating toxic air, water and soil pollution, and destroying nature.”

As Gaza’s environmental crisis unfolds, it has become the subject of increasing concern across the world. Dawn, Pakistan’s newspaper of record, carried the TRT World report, and environmentalists from Jordan to the United States have highlighted the impact of Israel’s war in Gaza. And Hamas, eager to stoke condemnation of Israel and draw attention away from its attacks on civilians, emphasised the prospect of twin environmental and health crises days after the Israeli bombardment began.

Israel’s deployment of controversial weapons has generated a range of damaging headlines: the Israeli military has used white phosphorous, which can pollute soil, water, and wildlife.

In past wars in Gaza, Israel has also faced accusations of relying on shells with depleted uranium, a radioactive substance that lingers in the environment and whose use experts have connected to cancer and birth defects in war zones.

“The use of white phosphorus in Gaza is a violation of international law and a violation of the human rights of Palestinians,” Boyd, the UN official, told TRT World.

Even as international law appears to have had little impact on Israel’s military strategy in Gaza or the toll on the environment, the international community will likely have to play a leading role in rebuilding the territory and its infrastructure for environmental protection: the UN has put the cost of Gaza’s reconstruction in the billions of dollars, and past provisions of humanitarian aid have relied on the goodwill of regional powers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

But the ultimate recovery of the environment may depend on who governs Gaza the day after the war. If Israel succeeds in ousting Hamas from the territory and undertakes another military occupation of Gaza — as some Western officials fear — environmental degradation in the enclave may only accelerate.

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The Conflict and Environment Observatory’s report tied such occupations to “environmental harm” and “the slow collapse of critical environmental infrastructure.”

For a case study, observers need look no further than the West Bank, where Israel’s occupation has continued to damage the environment as Gaza shakes under Israeli bombardment.

Whatever political fate the future holds for Gaza, the long-term consequences for the territory’s environment are clear: the pollution of a weeks-old war, delivered from the bomb bays of warplanes and the barrels of tanks, will last years and perhaps a lifetime.